Notifications: They tell me when I’ve missed a call, gotten an Email, received a text message and so so much more. Notifications have become a critical part of how I work and play and without them, I sometimes wonder if I’d know where to begin.
The Lock Screen
On iOS, the first way I likely encounter notifications is on my lock screen. Quite simply, when I wake my phone, notifications show on my lock screen in the order received, oldest to newest. So, when I wake up in the morning, or come out of a meeting and grab my phone, I can quickly skim through whatever notifications I’ve missed over night. On Android, the experience is very different. First, my lock screen shows notifications, however, they do not seem ordered in any particular way. For example, looking at my lock screen right now, I see a FaceBook notification that came in an hour ago followed by a Skype notification telling me about a message I received three minutes ago. Next to both of these notifications, I have an “expand” button which, if activated, will show me additional notifications from that application. Put another way, the notifications seem to be grouped even if the groups themselves don’t seem ordered in any particular method. On the one hand this grouping thing is kind of neat as I can quickly see the apps that have sent me notifications and, if I’m interested in the particulars of any, I can expand them. The problem is that this too doesn’t seem standardized between applications: Some applications group notifications as just described, others don’t. In addition, some applications have a specific button that says “expand” to which I can swipe and others require me to tap on the notification itself and go on faith that it will expand to show additional content. Others say “dismissable” although I haven’t figured out how to actually dismiss them. Much as I like the concept of grouped notifications, the inconsistencies I’ve observed so far make it more confusing than anything else. One cool thing that Android seems to have on the lock screen though is this thing I’m calling the notification summary bar. If I explore by touch, moving upward from the bottom of the lock screen, I encounter a line that, when touched, reads a number followed by a detailed listing of all my notifications. I’m not sure what this looks like visually as there’s just no way all the content that gets read aloud would fit on the lock screen, let alone a single line. Still, it’s a good way to quickly get an overview of all notifications.
Notification Center and the Notification Shade
Both iOS and Android have a way to display notifications once the device is unlocked, iOS calls this the notification center and Android (at least TalkBack) calls this the Notification Shade. On iOS, the Notification Center is opened by using a three-finger swipe down gesture from the top status bar. On Android, there are two ways to access the Notification Shade, either a TalkBack-specific swipe right then down gesture, or a two-finger swipe down from top gesture. I’m improving, however in the beginning, it was a bit challenging for me to perform either of these gestures reliably. When the Notification Shade is activated, I first encounter the time followed by my WIFI status and a control to disable WIFI, then my cellular signal status, then my battery status, then my Bluetooth status, then my screen orientation, and then my notifications. While this is quite a bit to have to go through, having a sort of quick control center easily available is neat. As with the lock screen, notifications are grouped, or at least they attempt to be and like the lock screen, the grouping doesn’t seem consistent. On the shade, I have a GMail notification that says “nine more notifications inside”. Other notifications though don’t tell me how much additional content they may or may not include and I only know they are expandable as they are followed by a button that says “expand.” This button isn’t programmatically associated with the notification though, so unless I swipe through this shade, I’m not sure which notifications are associated with buttons to expand additional content. The Notification Shade also contains a few details that don’t appear on my lock screen, one is my local weather and another is an Android notification advising me that I can enable the ability to unlock my phone with my voice. While it doesn’t really bother me, the weather appearing here is a bit incongruous with the other types of notifications present. At the very end of the Notification Shade is an unlabeled button which I’ve discovered is a clear all notifications button of some sort. I know it’s possible to clear all notifications on iOS if using an iDevice with 3D touch, however, this seemingly simple and logical feature has existed on Android for a long time now and it could almost be fantastic. I say almost because, when I activate this button, my phone starts going crazy and counting down messages while playing a notification tone, “82 messages 81 messages 80 messages 79 messages 78 messages …” and a tone for each one. I’ve discovered that if I lock my screen at this point, the countdown seems to proceed much faster, probably because TalkBack isn’t trying to read the number of messages. I really have no idea why this is happening, but while the clear all notifications feature is a good one, I definitely hesitate before using it.
Sounds, vibrations and other observations
One of the more baffling things I’ve noticed about notification sounds on Android is that, at least on the devices I’ve tried, they always play through both the headphones (assuming headphones are plugged in) and the phone’s speaker. So, let’s say I’m in a meeting and I decide to have a text conversation with someone — strictly a hypothetical situation in case my boss happens to be reading this blog post. 🙂 I plug headphones in and send a text. When I receive an answer though, the notification sound is played through both the headphones and the phone’s speaker. I can set my notification alerts to vibrate only and solve this problem, but it still strikes me as odd that I can’t make notification sounds play strictly through headphones. Conversely, if I’m on a call, phone/Skype/WebEx/other, I don’t hear any notification sounds at all. Presumably the thinking here is that I wouldn’t want my call interrupted with additional sounds being played, however, I find those notification sounds very helpful for determining the notification I just received. If I get a notification while on a call, indicated by a vibration, the only thing I can do is open the Notification Shade and hope that the most recent notification is on top, or at least not grouped with other notifications. In reality, this has proven extremely problematic for me, almost to the point of being a complete deal breaker. Part of the reason this doesn’t work as smoothly as it possibly could is because TalkBack forces me to make a very difficult choice; whether notifications should be read aloud when the phone’s screen is locked. If I enable this feature, all my notifications get read aloud when the screen is locked including sensitive content such as text messages, Hangouts conversations and so forth. If I disable this feature, TalkBack stays quiet when notifications appear on the lock screen, however, as the screen automatically locks after a short period of time when on a call, this means nothing gets read which isn’t helpful since I don’t get the sounds in the call scenario either. But let’s push that entire mess to the side for just a moment and talk a little about notification sounds themselves. One of the really cool things about Android is that many apps allow their notification sound to be customized. This means that unlike in iOS where many applications use the default iOS tri-tone notification default sound, Android applications allow the user to pick from whatever text/notification sounds exist on the device. This is one feature I absolutely love, at least I would if Android would stop resetting certain sounds to the default sound. For example, I configured my device to play one notification sound when receiving work Email and another sound when receiving personal Email. That worked fantastic for three days or so, but now I’m getting the default notification sound regardless of whether Email is received on my work or personal accounts. Other apps which have unique notification sounds on iOS don’t seem to have any unique sounds on Android, either that, or they do have the same unique sounds, but the default notification sound is being played for reasons I can’t explain. For example, there’s an accessible dice game called Dice World which has a notification sound of dice rolling when an opponent has played their turn. Initially, this sound would play just fine on my device, but now, I just get the standard notification sound and don’t seem able to change it. Quick side note: Yes, I do have the “play notification sound” enabled in Dice World. Same situation with Tweetings, a very powerful Twitter client that has built-in notification sounds that initially played, but which now no longer do. Point here is that the ability to customize notification sounds is extremely powerful, but I’m not sure how stable it is. In addition, not all apps allow notification sounds to be customized in the first place.
As I wrap up this blog post, I’m left with the feeling that I’m barely scratching the surface of Android notifications. I say this because I’ve gotten feedback on Twitter and elsewhere that others are not having the same experiences as me. For example, some people claim to have an edit button on their Notification Shade which allows them to specify how notifications get sorted while others do not. I’m also not sure if anyone else is experiencing the same inconsistencies as me with regard to notification sound preferences resetting themselves to default. In the end though, I remain confident that I can find workable solutions to these challenges, how difficult those solutions may be to implement remains to be seen.